(This is a piece of opinion, written on the moment of inspiration. It is thus one that is not scientific, nor well edited, not well structured. Much of what I write here might be wrong-headed. Opinion often is. I once more remind readers that I am terrible at orthography)
Part I: A Bad Review of a Bad Book
Sometimes reading a really bad book can engender in one good ideas. Corey Robin’s “The Reactionary Mind” is a bad book. It is not a bad book because of its central thesis, that what we call “Conservatism” is a deeply radical ideology committed to hierarchy that arose in reaction to the egalitarian demands unleashed by the French Revolution. It is not a bad book because from what I can glean from the author’s writings Robin is a committed Marxist. It’s a bad book because a brilliant thesis is badly serviced by a pastiche of articles that masquerade as chapters. However, exactly because there is brilliance in it, it is one of those bad books that cannot help but lead you to some fruitful thinking.
Let me start by saying that I am not a political theorist by training. I have read political theory, I have taken graduate classes in it, I find it fascinating, but it is not what I am specialized. Ergo why this post is opinion and not science. Everything I am going to write below is my opinion, and is neither necessarily true nor backed by the social scientific method. That said let us get on with this flippancy of thought.
What drew me to Robin’s book was the author marshaled an unlikely source to the rather old argument that “Conservatism” as a political ideology and project was really as radical as the egalitarian movements it opposed. This is an old argument, debated even among self-styled “Conservatives”, touches on things like the historical experience of Thatcherism, the radical temperament of the Tea Party, and an underlying theme among many “Conservative” authors that was deeply hostile to the established order. What made Robin’s thesis worthy of reading it in 4 hours, was the claim that Edmund Burke, the father of modern “Conservatism” and the poster boy of “Traditionalist Conservative” was also one of the originators of this radical thread.
I started the book with an interest to see the argument laid forth and the start was not bad at all. The introduction and 1st chapter laid forth the basic argument which was that a) “Conservatism” as a political ideology is committed to hierarchy as a social institution , whether that is hierarchy produced by nature (libertarians, classical liberals) or by history (nationalists, racists, elitists) b) “Conservatism” as a political ideology is reactionary in the sense that it arose in reaction to the successes of egalitarian (anti-hierarchical) projects started from below since the French Revolution (Robin calls them the Left) c) “Conservatism” is radical as it is willing to see the current social system overthrown, even by violent means, if the current social system becomes too hierarchical d) this radicalism is not new but accompanied the movement from the start. To make the points the author provides excerpts from the work and words of various “Conservative” leaders and thinkers, including Burke and De Maistre. It this part of the work that indicates a good scholarly mind, as Robin leads us through this process to the current focus of American “Conservatism” on preserving natural or historical hierarchies in private life (workplace and family).
The start is good but it ends with Chapter 1. I continued expecting to see a deep analysis of Burke’s thinking (whose “traditionalist conservative” bona fides have been questioned, for example in Jennifer Pitt “Liberal Imperialism”), or De Maistre’s thinking. Instead I got nine dis-jointed chapters that seemly did not fit the narrative. Hobbes is given a whole chapter, making the case for his radicalism, but this does not fit the reactionary narrative focused on the French Revolution. Ayn Rand gets a whole chapter, because…because that. The Neo-conservatives also get a lot. It is only at the very end, that the brilliant narrative resurfaces. But by then I have been lost, and let down.
It would had been much better if this had been a single pamphlet of the first two chapters and the last. Instead, probably for publish or perish reason, Robin had to tack a number of essays, many written for activist ideological journal like The Nation, into a book. Sometimes this works, when the disparate parts are connected by a narrative. Sometimes it does not. This time it did not.
However, the good parts are still thought provoking. One thing with which I have struggled my whole life has been my political identity. I have always envied my friends who are assured of their ideas (or present a picture of confidence). Who can always choose without a problem a side in conflict and support it. I on the other hand tend to meander from principle to principle, and never feel completely comfortable with a label. This has arisen fears in me that I am no better than an opportunist like Napoleon III, or the French Republican Opportunists of the early Third Republic. I do not have a political ideology so much as an affinity to certain views. 19th century Anarchists, the “politiques” like Richelieu, social-democracy, aristocratic conservatism, all are things I have felt some affinity for but not committed to in my life. I like to say nowadays that I have conservative temperament but I have never felt comfortable with “Conservatism”.
Robin’s thesis has helped cast some light on why this has been the case and maybe the beginnings of an answer. It has assuredly locked in me he long held view that the terms of our political dialogue are simply inadequate for explaining first principles. “Conservative”, “Liberal”, “Progressive”, “Left”, “Right” are terms chosen to appeal to partisan politics, and thus bad for explaining the true, at least as I see them, political divides. Of course the attack on terms like “Left” and “Right” is nothing new, and Robin points out the penchant of populists “Conservatives”, including fascists (who are “Conservatives” by this schema since their goal is the institutionalization of a certain hierarchy, one they see as of nature) , to attack this schema. I agree with him that to say “Left” and “Right” are meaningless is a foolish thing to do. But whether those specific terms are useful for the principles they hold is an open question for me.
So the next part is to start exploring alteranatives
So the next part is to start exploring alteranatives